Cannabis sales approved near homes in Empire. Why Stanislaus County OKs the exception

Stanislaus County leaders voted Tuesday to approve a retail cannabis shop in Empire, granting a waiver that allows retail sales within 200 feet of nearby homes.

It’s the seventh time the county has let the cannabis industry slide on a 200-foot setback requirement, which was intended to create a buffer between legal cannabis operations and places where people live and raise families. A dozen houses are within 200 feet of Empire Health and Wellness on Yosemite Boulevard.

Tuesday’s 4-1 vote makes Empire Wellness the only approved cannabis outlet in Empire. In August, the county Planning Commission on a 4-3 vote rejected a motion to approve the permit partly over concerns about the proximity to dwellings.

The owner presented photos to supervisors showing the existing business had cleaned up a neglected area frequented by the homeless. There was no opposition to the permit at the planning commission meeting in August, though a few people spoke against it at Tuesday’s hearing.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who cast the “no” vote, said the residential setback was created for a reason; nonetheless, cannabis vendors are seeking permits in locations that don’t comply with the regulations. “I don’t think we should allow this in a residential area,” he said.

Darren Silva, owner of Empire Wellness, said there’s not much commercial property in unincorporated communities that is far away from homes.

Supevisor Kristin Olsen said the limited options for vendors was a point well taken. She also noted the lack of opposition in the Empire community.

Empire Wellness was the 19th application in a line of 33 commercial cannabis proposals being considered in Stanislaus County. County leaders previously granted exceptions to the setback requirement in the case of older homes in an industrial area, in agricultural zones and in commercial areas near property zoned for housing.

The Empire outlet is expected to generate up to $500,000 in fees over five years. Supervisor Vito Chiesa said a community benefit portion of fees collected from cannabis vendors should be spent on improvements for that community.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.